Lost in Translation: “tu” vs. “vous”

The detailed illustrations of the decadent scenes in Monsieur Venus seem to be vividly translated between French and English. The language used in our edition seems as poetic as I imagine the passages would be in the original French. As with any work in translation, however, there are certain aspects of Rachilde’s story that cannot be explored as thoroughly in our language as in the original. In Monsieur Venus, the subtle alterations of the French pronouns (particularly “tu” and “vous”) do not carry over into our English copies. Luckily for us, the thorough footnotes in Melanie Hawthorne’s translation of the novel give her readers some insight to the thematic significance of the pronouns used throughout the text.

The pronouns begin flipping between the formal and informal “you” in Chapter Three. In this chapter, the reader witnesses Raoule fighting with herself to figure out how to shape her relationship with Jacques. As she pulls aside the curtain to reveal him bathing, she cries “Child, do you know that you are marvelous?” (42), and uses the “tu” form for the first time. This is appropriate, as noted by the footnote, considering that she is addressing him as a child, but it is even more so interesting that Raoule continues to address Jacques in this informal register for the remainder of the chapter. The language she uses degrades Jacques status and serves as a reminder that the characters are of very different social classes, which relates to their status within their intimate relationship as well. Raoule is able to dominate Jacques because plays the power-hungry masculine role in their intimate relationship and also holds more social power in their public relations.

The “you” pronoun is later used to characterize Raoule and Raittolbe as members of a higher social class when they respectfully address each other in the “vous” form in Chapter Four, which Hawthorne notes is a stark contrast to the relationship between Raoule and Jacques. Jacques would not dare use the “tu” form with Raoule throughout the beginning of the book and all the way until the end of Chapter Four. This is significant because Rachilde develops a complex relationship triangle between the characters of Raoule, Raittolbe, and Jacques, and the “you” form reveals the variations of class and levels of intimacy between the three characters. In Chapter Six, the simple “tu” pronoun is extremely significant because the informality with which Raoule addresses Jacques in front of Raittolbe unintentionally indicates to Raittolbe that the other two characters are sexually intimate.

There are many other examples of “tu” and “vous” indicating the transgression of class lines and degrees of intimacy throughout the novel. Just to mention a few more significant passages, at the end of Chapter Nine during Raittolbe’s moment of homosexual panic, he insults Jacques as a “scoundrel” using the “tu” form. This word choice emphasizes Raittolbe’s ability to degrade the value of Jacque’s social status due to his belonging to a higher class. In Chapter 10, Marie reveals that she has an intimate relationship with Raittolbe by addressing him in the “tu” form, which is also significant since she belongs to the same class as her brother, Jacques, yet can use this informal register to address someone from a higher class. In Chapter 14, Raoule’s aunt distances herself from Raoule by addressing the character in the “vous” form instead of the more familial, informal way. Also, throughout the duel scene near the end of the story, Raittolbe and Raoule alternate between using the “tu” and the “vous” forms to emphasize the variations between their personal relationship and their relationship to their society as indicated by social class.

In all of these examples, Rachilde manipulates the second person pronoun to indicate more than just which character dialogue is targeted towards. The pronoun indicates degrees of intimacy, respect, and status. The extent to which the meaning of “you” alters throughout the book nearly makes it feel like a homophone/homograph. The variations of the pronoun are easily recognizable in the French edition, but without the footnotes would be devoid of meaning in the English translation. This is somewhat worrisome because the variation of the pronouns in Rachilde’s story serves as a useful strategy to develop the theme of transgressing not only gender lines, but also social classes in Monseiur Venus. If we are to lose the nuanced tension between characters that is so integral to the central themes of the story in our translation, what else might be lacking in a translated addition? What is the significance of pronouns in our own language—how does English similarly indicate boundaries of social class through the connotation of common words? How deliberate was Rachilde’s decision to flip back and forth between the “tu” and “vous” forms? What is the significance of grammatical and connotative discrepancies with any work in translation? While I don’t think any of these questions are easily answered, they are interesting and important inquiries to consider. In any case, while we may not have been able to read Monseir Venus in the original French, our class is lucky to have had access to such deliberate footnotes that help to uncover what would have otherwise been lost in translation.




Filed under Week 4: Rachilde's Monsieur Venus

2 responses to “Lost in Translation: “tu” vs. “vous”

  1. EV, thank you for writing a blog post on this topic! The issue of tu vs. vous and the impact of reading a translated text was one that came up for me when I was reading this novel, as well. I, too, was grateful for the footnotes, though I believe there is still something that readers of the English version lack by not having the two forms for “you” that the footnotes cannot fully fix. On a tangentially related point, I thought it was interesting to see how much the footnotes changed my reading of the text. Without the footnotes, especially those denoting the tu/vous difference as well as the historical/religious references, I would have had a completely different experience and takeaway from the novel. It makes me wonder what it is like to read and interpret the English version of M. Venus without footnotes.
    – LGT

  2. EV, very interesting blog post and actually something that I was thinking about as well! I agree it is a great question to think about what else could have been lost in this english translation of the text. I also like the opening up of your blog post at the end to take this narrow topic to the whole of the english language. I had never really thought about what words we use in the english language to convey the same meaning as the french “tu” and “vous” forms. What in the english language makes it so the conversation between two people is more distant and reserved, perhaps showing a difference in class status or intimacy between two people. Is it just the tone of voice or the word choice as well? Does the english language have specific words like “tu” and “vous” in the french that are easily picked out or is it mostly body language between two people?
    – ACT

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